The history of chocolate illustrates the dilemma of good intentions and the moral ambiguity of efforts by one culture — in this case that of the wealthy white Christianity-dominated West — to re-form and re-create another culture in their own image. This ambiguity shows itself in the early history of American Christian missionaries bringing their faith — faith in God, and in the sort of education and vocational training they saw as inseparable from the preaching of the gospel — to Ghana in the late 19th and early 20 century, and it shows itself throughout the history of complex cultural interactions around the cultivation of chocolate. It shows itself, too, in the current conditions of the economy of chocolate, and, maybe most poignantly, in the ideological and humanistic battles around the billion-dollar trust created by the vast chocolate wealth of the Hershey family and the extraordinary school it funds. Like chocolate, religious and moral proselytizing often comes in with a sugar coating that can’t be refused, but underneath that sweetness lies something bitter.
Missionaries promise better lives for the people they preach to, while often completely devaluing and invalidating their existing cultures and lives. In the article “MISSIONARY SPOTLIGHT – Ghana’s Christian legacy” on Evangelical Times, it is claimed that Christianity has “contributed in no small way to the development of Ghanaian society and the well-being of its people.” This article claims that while part of this improvement was due to development of education and medical services, Presbyterian Basel missionaries also helped the people of Ghana by introducing cacao to the region and providing training on how to grow it. The author notes that spreading Christianity in Ghana was not always an easy task. Missionaries were sometimes not welcomed, and “faced the hostility of the priests of traditional African religion, particularly when the latter’s shrines were forsaken by Christian converts” (Dapaah). This article reflects no self-awareness of why the religious reformation of Ghana may not have delighted all, or of the possibility that the traditional religion held value to the people. It is also fascinating that, taking credit for the introduction of cacao in Ghana, Evangelical Times assumes this as a positive influence. In other contexts, the cacao industry in Ghana has been under much moral scrutiny by the Western world.
Consumers of chocolate want to feel good about what they are buying. Chocolate is, after all, the quintessential feel-good product, often connected in buyers’ minds with cozy notions of love and warm indulgence. It is upsetting to consider that we may be causing harm in buying it, and consumers are quick to squelch their guilt by opting for choices that advertise ethical production.
Problems of ethics in chocolate production are often portrayed in the West by stressing the dismal conditions of cacao farmers’ lives, highlighting their poverty, lack of education, or abuses propagated on or by them. We depict them as people who need our help to have any quality of life or morals. Orla Ryan’s Chocolate Nations chapter Child Labor shows that people in the West greatly exaggerate and misinterpret child labor on cacao farms in Africa. It is portrayed as a moral crisis that children are forced to work, and an often-suggested solution is the boycott of any chocolate produced with child labor. However, the children and families themselves view the situation differently. While some children are trafficked or forced to work against their will, it is most common for children to work along with the rest of their family on the family cacao farm. This can be dangerous, but it is not caused by sadism on the part of the perpetrating family members— there is simply such a problem with poverty that everybody has to work to survive. For this reason, boycotting chocolate from these farms would do little good and possibly have disastrous effects by further increasing poverty. Addressing child labor from a place of classist, racist moral superiority is not what the world needs (Ryan).
In the article “Spend & Save: The Narrative of Fair Trade and White Saviorism,” Bani Amor explains that fair-trade companies often are founded by white people seeking to portray themselves as heroic “fixers” of world issues, while suggesting erroneously that the problems of capitalism can be solved through capitalism means. She believes that this “saviorism through consumerism” actually relies on rather than dismantle oppressive structures.
“Saviorism employs a time-honored colonial narrative: The sad state of the savage Other necessitates civilizing via white/Western intervention, which maintains dominion over resources that sometimes trickle down to the needy via acts of charity. In his landmark 2012 essay, ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex,’ Teju Cole reminds us that saviorism ‘is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.’ …[I]t validates supremacy more than anything, because assuming the role of the savior is also a show of power” (Amor).
Saviorism validates supremacy— the supremacy of the white Western elite, their religion and morals, and what they have to offer. Allowing saviorism to continue is a roadblock to growing as a culture to celebrate diversity and embrace equality.
The Milton Hershey School
Saviorism is often about race, but it is also about class. The Milton Hershey School is an example of class saviorism within the chocolate culture and industry in America. Milton S. Hershey and his wife Catherine had big dreams when they set up the utopian chocolate town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. They wanted to make a place where people were productive but also happy and well provided for. This was reflected in how Milton Hershey organized his company and town and also in the creation of what was then known as the “industrial school,” a school for orphaned boys established in the town of Hershey in 1909. The school was meant to provide opportunities for the many boys left orphaned in that time period, but also to morally shape these boys so that they would not become “shiftless and criminal men who would spawn another generation of undesirables” as was a great concern of society at the time (D’Antonio 197). In addition to Milton and Catherine’s philanthropic predilections, they found joy in inviting orphans into their lives because they themselves were unable to have children. However, there was a problem with this utopian conception. The program was designed with the purpose of shaping boys to become a certain type of upstanding, honest citizens who had to meet strict standards of behavior, performance, and character. Though the school did not require every pupil to be religious, it did teach Christian morals and expel anyone “incorrigible” or “undesirable”— boys were required to be “healthy” in every way to attend and many boys were sent away when they did not uphold these standards (D’Antonio 199).
The school is now known as the Milton Hershey School. Still funded by a trust made by Hershey, offers more than free tuition— it offers free medical and dental care and will even buy clothes for its students and house them year round if needed. It is no longer a school only for orphaned boys, and the website appeals to parents by offering extraordinary care for children at no cost. Though this may offer a wonderful opportunity for some, it imposes upon parents the idea that if they are poor, their children would be better off removed from their care and transplanted into idyllic Christian wealth with strangers. It is a problematic design to, instead of addressing poverty and education inequality in disadvantaged areas, select a few promising children to remove from their lives and reshape through privilege. Though it is illegal to discriminate against students based on health, the school website still states that children must “be free of serious behavioral problems that are likely to disrupt life in the classroom or student home life” (Admissions Considerations). Children at the Milton Hershey School are also required to attend church regularly, and the website states that “The school encourages students to learn to love God and others, to give service to their community, and to live a morally upright life. Devotions are woven into their daily routine” (Student Activities).
These moral and religious standards have led to problems in recent years at the Milton Hershey School. There have been complaints of discrimination and abuse. In a 2017 article on advocate.com, an incident is detailed in which a teenage student claims to have been forced to watch an hour-long gay conversion therapy video by his house-parents at the Milton Hershey School. The student said that he was also forced to pray with his house-parents to have God help him away from gayness, and was told stories of other gay people who had terrible things happen to them. In 2013, this student was expelled from the school following a suicidal gesture. This is an example of the great harm that can come about from imposing moral and religious values, and it also illustrates the school’s problematic readiness to expell students who displayed signs of mental illness. The school admitted that this incident occurred but denied any official involvement in the showing of the video, though conversion therapy is in line with the original vision of the founder.
“A spokeswoman for the school, Lisa Scullin, who responded to Dobson’s suit against the school by saying conversion therapy is a ‘practice the administration would never allow or condone,’ doubled down on denying official involvement in response to the revelation that conversion therapy had indeed been promoted at Hershey.
‘Unequivocally, the school does not promote or endorse any program that could be remotely characterized as gay conversion therapy,’ Scullin said. ‘Any suggestion otherwise is a gross mischaracterization of our values and the environment on our campus.'”
This was not an isolated incident. Last year, a second former student of the Milton Hershey School claimed that he was forced to watch the same video, and states that he was humiliated in front of others and made to feel “like the scum of the earth” by the incident. Human Rights Campaign states that gay conversion therapy techniques “have been rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades, but due to continuing discrimination and societal bias against LGBTQ people, some practitioners continue to conduct conversion therapy. Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.” Because these methods are so injurious, a number of states and municipalities have put laws in place to protect minors from them. It is deeply troubling that an orginization meant to protect children would in fact use their position to attempt to abusively mold them to fit a moral ideal, and these incidents reveal a need for radically increased scrutiny of any such “savior” programs for youth.
Imposition of Culture is Dehumanizing
The world’s privileged white elite often act as though by helping others they gain the right to impose their own “superior” moral values, but fail to recognize that imposition of culture is dehumanizing. This saviorism takes away people’s autonomy and inherent right to self-determination. Although nobody wants to be trapped in poverty or treated unfairly, that does not mean that the Western white Christian capitalist life is the model of supremacy. It is important to improve fairness in the chocolate industry and in education, but in this endeavor it is vital to integrate respect for those we are helping and listen to their values and needs rather than imposing our own—to work with rather than for them.
Ryan Órla. Chocolate Nations Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2011.
D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey Milton S. Hersheys Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Paw Prints, 2008.
Amor, Bani. “Spend & Save: The Narrative of Fair Trade and White Saviorism.” Bitch Media, http://www.bitchmedia.org/article/spend-save.
Depaah, George.”MISSIONARY SPOTLIGHT – Ghana’s Christian legacy.” Evangelical Times, https://www.evangelical-times.org/28075/missionary-spotlight-ghanas-christian-legacy/
“Milton Hershey School.” Milton Hershey School, http://www.mhskids.org/.
Fernandez, Bob. “A 2nd former Hershey School student says he was forced to watch gay conversion film” The Enquirer, http://www.philly.com/philly/business/comcast/a-2nd-former-hershey-school-student-says-he-was-forced-to-watch-gay-conversion-film-20170801.html
“The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.” Human Rights Campaign, https://www.hrc.org/resources/the-lies-and-dangers-of-reparative-therapy
Reaching hand image from pixabay.com CC0 Creative Commons
Milton S. Hershey portrait is from wikimedia commons and is in the public domain